COVID-19 relief and economic recovery must dismantle environmental racism

COVID-19 relief and economic recovery must dismantle environmental racism
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The record-breaking national demonstrations that arose from George Floyd’s death, as well as the extreme racial disparities of the COVID-19 crisis highlighted by the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have exposed systematic racism across the United States. But climate change is not slowing for protests or pandemic — there, too, we find communities of color once again hit the hardest.

People of color experience greater incidence of human and financial loss because of extreme weather events such as hurricanes. Discriminatory housing and permitting policies expose people of color to more extreme heat, pollution and ecosystem disruption in their communities. Generations of structural racism have left many in these same communities without access to quality, affordable health care and good jobs, impeding the economic security needed for recovery.

Unified by a desire to confront the compounding devastation of structural and environmental inequality and climate change, 75 environmental justice and national environmental groups came together last July to launch the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. Signed by more than 280 organizations, the platform calls for a national climate agenda centered on advancing economic, racial, climate and environmental justice.

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One year ago, we could not have foreseen the events that now grip the nation. On the platform’s anniversary, the country is recognizing its systemic racism — and how far we must go to dismantle it. With these longstanding inequalities in the spotlight, Congress must not squander this unprecedented opportunity to transform our nation’s treatment of Black, Indigenous and Latino communities while enacting sustainable, equitable climate solutions. 

The widespread inequality that undercuts the health, safety and well-being of tribal communities and communities of color exacerbates the impacts of COVID-19. The coronavirus death rate for Black Americans, adjusted for age, is estimated to be twice as high as for white Americans, according to data from the CDC. As of April 30, the Navajo Nation had the third-highest per capita infection rate of COVID-19 in the country, after New Jersey and New York. Some tribes are experiencing rates as high as 3,300 cases per 100,000 individuals.

This disparity cannot be separated from the historically unjust living conditions in these communities. A Harvard Medical School study found people living in areas with higher levels of particulate matter are more likely to die from the virus. The average Black American breathes air with 46 percent more particulate matter, or soot, than the average white American. The Navajo Nation was home to one of the top 10 sources of carbon pollution in the U.S. — a coal plant emitting 8.6 million tons of carbon dioxide annually in addition to other pollutants. More than one in three Latinos live in areas with ozone levels that violate the federal air quality standard, and many Latino communities are more at risk of cancer related to toxic air emissions from oil and gas development. Similarly, unemployment rates are significantly higher among people of color compared to those for white people. 

It is unacceptable to ignore these life-shattering realities. The persistent threats to people of color are a symptom of unjust policies and decades of public and private disinvestment. As Congress focuses on economic stimulus, it must recognize that investments in environmental justice are intrinsic to COVID-19 relief. Families and businesses impacted by the coronavirus cannot afford to have their water shut off. They also rely on programs such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to keep their lights on, or the Weatherization Assistance Program to safely shelter in their homes.

Fortunately, Congress has begun to take note.  

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In March, Reps. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to House and Senate leaders calling for an economic stimulus plan grounded in environmental justice. Their letter, signed by 43 House members, adopted many of the recommendations advocated by the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform co-authors. Chief among them were investments in air and water quality, energy security, access to water, affordable housing and transportation, and toxic waste cleanup. Many of these recommendations since have been included in the House of Representatives’ Moving Forward Act, which aims to upgrade our nation’s infrastructure, and the landmark climate action plan released by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

By building these recommendations into COVID-19 relief, Congress also could create jobs during a time of unprecedented unemployment and economic recession. A Rhodium Group analysis found pursuing 11 of the 16 investment measures within the McEachin-Grijalva letter would mobilize a total of $107 billion and support nearly 300,000 jobs per year over the next five years.

Unless immediately and intentionally dismantled, environmental racism and the systemic injustices it perpetuates will continue to divide us. By enacting economic recovery and COVID-19 relief legislation that invests in environmental justice, Congress can create jobs while making progress on addressing climate change and building a nation where all people share the benefits of a prosperous, healthy and pollution-free economy. 

John Podesta served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, counselor to President Barack Obama and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. 

Cecilia Martinez, Ph.D., is co-founder and executive director at the Center for Earth, Energy, and Democracy.